The rent was due, and private detective Anne Carter needed a case fast. And right on cue, a dame walks in with an easy job: tailing her famous artist hubby to see if he was cheating on her. But no one is who they seem in the Case of the Perfect Picture, and the stakes just might be Anne's soul.
Admin Note: Originally published on BigCloset TopShelf on Monday 10-25-2010 at 09:10:18 pm, this retro classic was pulled out of the closet, and re-presented for our newer readers. ~Sephrena
On a door, bottom half wood, top glass, on which the words 'Quinn Oliver' appear in reverse, in black Arial font letters.
Camera tracks through the door - CLOSE SHOT - of a woman behind a cheap Office Depot computer desk, staring at a computer screen. Her jaw is graceful and her green eyes almost glow, but her black hair is unkept and dark circles rest below her eyes. She wears a white long-sleeved blouse, and a gray wool suit coat hangs from a nearby coat tree.
Phone buzzes; two rapid rings. The woman presses a button labeled 'intercom.'
“Get your shit together; potential client on her way up.”
“What's the job,” Anne said, twirling a hair strand like it was a new toy.
“Oh God, no! I can't shadow someone, not like this!”
“Three words, sweetie, 'rent is due.' Now brush the rat's nests out and suck it up. And ...close your file drawer.”
The intercom amplified Tara's sigh. “Just do it.”
Anne just had time to slip on her jacket, run a hand through her hair, and close the drawer that held her Jack Daniels, when the office door clicked open.
“Go on in Mrs. Donovan.” Tara's voice drifted in.
A blonde tiptoed in, wearing a short skirt that was five years too young for her. Her eyes were puffy, with a slight mascara run. Anne rose and motioned to the chair in front of her desk.
“Have a seat; did Tara offer you coffee?”
The woman nodded and lowered to her chair. “I hoped to meet with ...Mr. Oliver?”
“Quinn is out on a case; I'm his associate, Anne Carter,” she said, extending a hand. Anne slumped into her swivel chair after the woman shook it.
“Don't worry, Mrs. Donovan; if you decide to use our firm, Mr. Oliver will be in charge. Why don't you tell me why you're here.”
“Call me Sarah, and actually,” Sarah leaned over the desk, “I'd prefer speaking to you rather than a man.”
Anne winced. “Go on.”
“I think my husband's...” Sarah looked around the room, as if to see if others were present, “...having an affair.”
“And what makes you think that Mr. Donovan-”
“-is cheating on you?” Anne sat forward in her chair, and frowned. “Wait a minute; you're married to Arik Donovan? The painter?”
“You've heard of him?” Sarah smiled slightly.
“Yeah, who hasn't, after that time he rigged the lights in all sky scrapers to form a picture.”
Anne was still impressed by the stunt; the man somehow coaxed the owners of every high-rise to allow him to use their buildings as a canvas. A light off here, on there, the skyline picture was amazing.
The blonde's eyes glistened. “He's been coming home late, smelling of a perfume I don't own.”
“Ah. Anything else?”
Sarah's head bobbed and she sniffed. “For two weeks, he says he's at his studio working late on his masterpiece, his 'perfect painting'. Last night, I went there and guess what? No Arik; the place was deserted.”
Anne rubbed her temples; a headache had pounded her all day. Due, no doubt to the river of whiskey she downed the night before.
“Maybe he was out catching a movie or-”
“-Catching a movie? Arik?” Sarah's laugh was so sharp Anne's ears hurt. “My husband's a recluse; it's well documented in the New Yorker, and all the major art blogs”
“Blogs? Lady, I still read the newspaper, and only the sports section of that. Now, based on what you've told me, my first hunch is for you to let this rest a few more days before-”
“-I MUST know! The doubt is driving me crazy. I have suffered so much with that man; I will not be cast aside for some bimbo. I'm prepared to pay whatever retainer you require.”
Anne leaned back and her eyes narrowed. “Two thousand dollars. Plus out of pocket expenses.”
Sarah's eyes widened. “Simply to follow a man? That seems excessive.”
“I advised you to be patient, but you insist you can't. We have other cases which will have to be put on hold while-”
“-Fine, whatever.” Sarah clawed a checkbook from her purse, scribbled on it. Ripped it out and threw it at Anne.
“He's a late riser; leaves our house at 11:00 for his studio.” Sarah rose to leave. “Follow him tomorrow; I'll call you for your report. I want her name, Ms. Carter. I want pictures.”
“Um ...what's your address?”
“For what I'm paying you, you figure it out,” Sarah snarled, and stomped out of the office.
The moment the main office door clicked shut, a lanky sun kissed woman of twenty four or five burst in.
“Why did you have to piss her off?” Tara said. “We needed her fees!”
“And we have them, Ms. Perine.” Anne held up the check. “Be so kind as to deposit this check tout suite at our banking establishment; I believe it will keep the wolves at bay for a few more days.”
Tara whistled. “Two thousand? I'll say!”
She headed for the door, but stopped and turned to her. “Won't you ...come over this evening? For dinner?”
Anne's head lowered and her voice turned soft. “Thanks, but no. Big day tomorrow. I'm shadowing the renowned artiste Arik Donovan. Gotta get my beauty sleep.”
Tara crossed her arms. “But you won't ...sleep I mean. Since this all happened you haven't been taking care of yourself. Every night you drink yourself stupid.”
“Please ...for me ...lay off the whiskey tonight.”
“Okay, no whiskey.” Anne cocked her head. “I'll drink something healthy ...a Screw Driver. Plenty of vitamin C and the vodka will be cleansing.”
“No, Anne! At the rate you're going, you'll kill yourself.”
Anne gave Tara a sad smile, but said nothing to refute her accusation. Finally she managed to mutter,
“Shoo, I'm not dead yet.”
MED. SHOT - FRONT OF A VICTORIAN MANSION - MID MORNING
Sprinklers are running on every third lawn in the upscale neighborhood. CAMERA PANS DOWN THE STREET to a black Charger. -CLOSE SHOT- of Anne, in the driver's seat, wearing a fedora and sunglasses.
When a white BMW backed out of the mansion driveway, Anne peered through her binoculars at the driver.
“Ah! There you are, Mr. Donovan.” Anne lowered the glasses to glance at her car clock. “And punctual. I like that in a fellow.”
She turned the ignition key and her Charger rumbled alive; she followed Donovan's car at a discreet distance. Anne's eyebrow cocked when Donovan drove past the Abernathy St. freeway exit, where, her morning's research informed, his 'world famous studio' sat.
“Maybe he's after a donut and coffee,” Anne murmured, “or whatever eccentric breakfast a highbrow like Donovan would eat. Probably eggs. Egg-centric eggs.”
Anne rolled her eyes at her own joke, then perked up when the white bimmer exited at 13th street. Several streets later, Anne couldn't suppress her smirk when Donovan rolled into the circular drive of the Ambassador Hotel.
“Maybe Sarah wasn't being paranoid after all. Still, too early to tell.”
Anne whipped her car into the hotel parking lot, tossed her hat in the back seat and hopped out; Donovan had handed his keys to the valet, and was already inside.
She frowned as she scurried through the revolving door and into the plush Ambassador lobby.
“Checking in, Miss?”
Anne turned to the voice, to see a college-aged bellhop, checking her out.
Jesus kid! I'm wearing, what, jeans and a sweatshirt and you're getting a woody? Go online or something.
She wanted to say that, but she didn't; she was on a case, and had to use every tool available.
Well ...not every tool.
“No, I'm ...”
Now how is this done?
Anne dropped her eyes and when she spoke, she made her pitch high a soft.
“...I'm Mr. Donovan's secretary. He has an urgent call from an art gallery, but he won't answer his cell phone. Can you tell me what room he's in?”
“Donovan? That's the art geek who's been staying here the past couple of weeks?”
Anne put a hand to her mouth and giggled. I just giggled. Giggled, dammit! I should have charge three thousand dollars!
“Art geek? I like that. He comes here every day? Same time? And does he bring anyone with him?”
“Nope. Creepiest thing; he goes in that room alone in the morning and then leaves- hey! I thought you said you were his secretary; why don't you know this?”
“I lied, kid, okay? I'm an investigator.” Anne slipped her hand into her purse and held up a ten. “What room is he in?”
“Hotel policy says I can’t give out that info, but...” he eyed the sawbuck. “...room 304. It's our haunted room, by the way, the one Ghost Chasers did a special on a few months ago.”
Haunted room? The kid's full of fun facts.
“304? Hmm...” Anne pulled out another ten. “Bet he's a lousy tipper. Could you get me one of those little card thingys that opens the door?”
The bellhop puzzled the ethical dilemma all of two seconds before he took the bill and handed a plastic card to her.
“This opens every room in the hotel,” he whispered. “Don't be gone too long, okay? I'll get fired if someone finds out.”
“Not to worry; be back in two ticks.”
Anne found the elevator banks and was quickly on the third floor. When she reached room 304, she pulled her digital camera from her purse and turned it on.
“This could be the easiest two thousand dollars I've ever made,” she muttered, as she swiped the door card.
FADE IN: INT. HOTEL SUITE
A woman, barefooted and redheaded, and perhaps thirty, stands in the middle of the room, in front of an easel, painting. She wears tiny denim shorts, a skimpy tank top and nothing else; a real knock out. The coffee table and couch have been shoved aside to clear space.
The door opens and Anne enters the room with camera flashing.
The woman turns, a languid movement. Her eyebrow raise, bemused, and she smiles.
“What have we here, a voyeuristic perv? Should I pose or scream for security?”
“Private Detective.” Anne lowered her camera, and fished her license out of a jean pocket, to show.
“Anne Carter, private dick. Shame you don't have one; I'd love just once to...” The blonde shook her head. “Sarah sent you, obviously; I wondered how long that would take.”
“Where is he? In the closet? Under the bed?” Anne scanned the room. “Donovan? Come out! Don't embarrass yourself more than you already have.”
The woman vaguely swept the room with her brush. “Arik is not here; only me. Have a snoop around, and then get out; I have painting to do.”
Anne shrugged, and did just that, checking in the bathroom, under the bed, in the closet, and found no one. When she walked
back into the living room, the woman pretended she didn't exist. So Anne stepped in front of the easel.
“I know he came in here; where the devil is he?”
“Interesting word choice,” the woman said. “What's your name again, sugar?”
“Carter, Anne Carter.” Anne slung back her black hair with a head jerk. “The better question is, what's yours?”
“I'm Kira.” She slapped a hand on her hip and thrust it to one side. “Wanna play?”
She's coming on ...to me? Anne snarled to mask her rising panic. “What I want are answers.”
“But playing would be sooo much more fun. Live a little, Annie Poo, ya never know when you might be a few brush strokes from death.”
“His lover? His mistress? What are you to Arik Donovan?”
“I'm closer to Arik Donovan than anyone else in the world.” Kira lips turned down. “You're starting to bore me, Ms. Carter, so run along, or I'll call security.”
Kira made a couple of quick flicks with her brush, as if to brush Anne out of the way. Anne turned to face the easel, and when she did, she couldn't turn away.
Bright colors shown from the canvass, reds, yellows, greens and blues. Vibrant. Pulsing.
A dense tropical jungle comprised the background; while in the center, a naked woman rested on the ground; her knees tucked underneath.
A muscular man, wearing a short loincloth, leaned to the woman, his lips readying for a kiss. The woman's face had yet to be painted.
Anne squinted to take a closer look. Indeed, she couldn't look away; her eyes traveling from one figure to the other, then back. She was so caught in its loop of beauty that she nearly stopped breathing; she would have, if the painting had been complete.
Kira's *ahem* broke the spell.
“I call it, 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci; what do you think?”
Anne's was raspy, far away. “It's ...it's...”
“One idiot critic described my style as being 'post fauv, pre-Raphaelite'. Imagine! It's so stupid it makes your head explode. But even he could do better than 'it's ...it's...'” Kira scowled. “Tell. Me. What. You. Think!”
“Perfect,” Anne exhaled.
A grin spread across Kira's face, but not one filled with light. Not entirely dark either, but somewhere in the middle.
“Not yet. It's not finished. Imagine what it will be like when I do?”
Anne gasped; if the painting had been finished, she might have stood there forever. Or at least until she died.
Kira sashayed to a nearby hotel telephone, picked up the receiver, and pressed a button.
“Hel-lo? Yes, darling, I wish to report an annoying intruder in room 304…”
Kira’s voice broke the spell holding her, allowing Anne to lurch for the door. She wasn't breathing right, and her head spun from the painting.
She wanted to say she'd be back, but Anne's lips were filled with lead.
Donovan was MIA, yet there was something about this dame -who had, grabbed her color palate and was painting again- that seemed familiar.
And that picture …was wrong.
Gasping for air, she spilled out into the hallway. A deep voice vibrated behind her, making her yip.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Carter, did you enjoy the viewing?”
Anne whipped around, to find a silver-haired gentleman, in a crisp navy Brooks Brothers' suit. His smile edged like a blade, and blackness spilled from his eyes. Anne's hands had started to creep toward the small pistol that was strapped to her ankle under her jeans, when the man raised his hands in surrender.
“I mean you no physical harm, I assure you; my name is Mr. L. Natas.”
The way the man drew out the ‘s’ at the end of his name made Anne shiver.
“Are you a manager here, um, Mr. Natas? Security?”
“Me? Provide security? You are too droll. Call me Luke; we should be on a first name basis, Anne.”
When the man spoke her name, Anne felt dirty. He reached in a coat pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes.
Anne jerked her head back and forth. “Not my vice.”
“Ah! That's right. Drink is your weakness, isn't it? Drink and ...pride? Plenty of company there, Anne. Hmmm ...Anne, such a functional name; whatever made you choose it? So different than your old one.”
Anne could have been a stone statue for all she could move; she could barely manage a whisper.
“Who are you?”
“Good question.” The man lit a cigarette, took a long draw, and let the smoke out slowly. It curled around his head.
“I guess you could call me a collector.”
“An art collector?” Anne said.
“Ha, ha! Why yes, just so! Think of me as one who buys priceless pieces of art.”
Some survival instinct in her brain screamed that she needed to get away from this man now! She edged her way to the elevator.
“Tell, me, Anne, if you could have one wish in the world, but the wish came at the highest of prices, would you pay it?”
“I don't know what you mean.”
“Donovan did. He wanted something so bad, he was willing to pay the ultimate price. Now that’s devotion.”
“Would you?” The man drew closer. “I mean, if, for instance, I could reverse ...hmmm ...some recent oddness that has occurred to you, and you could live the rest of your life as you were, would you?”
Anne's flight instinct kicked in harder, and her legs tensed to run, but his gaze wouldn't allow her to move.
“Would I ...what?”
“Pay the ultimate price?”
“I don't understand what you're saying.”
You don't play naíve well; you know exactly what I am proposing.
Had he spoken? Anne couldn't remember his lips moving.
Such a small thing I'm asking for; you won't even know it's gone.
Adrenalin surged through her body, and Anne sprinted for the stair well.
It's a standing offer. Think it over...
His laughter haunted her down the two flights of stairs, through the hotel lobby and out to her car. Only when she realized her speedometer read 99 did her brain came back online. She eased her foot off the gas pedal and steered her Charger off the next freeway exit.
With shaking hands that were barely able to grip the steering wheel, Anne pulled the car into an abandoned gas station. She turned the ignition key off, pulled the emergency brake up...
INT. OFFICE - MED. SHOT
Morning sun streams through office window, spotlighting Anne's slumped form over her desk. Her face is flattened against the desktop and her black hair has snarled everywhere.
CLOSE SHOT - ON A WHISKY BOTTLE
A Jack Daniels bottle lays on the floor, on its side, empty. Footsteps approach from the office reception area.
“Oh, Anne, not again! You slept here? What happened to tailing Donovan?”
When Tara raised Anne's head off the desk, she saw dried tear streaks and bloodshot eyes. Tara valiantly tried to bring a little order to Anne's chaotic hair by pulling it off her face and behind her head.
“Oh honey, you've been crying? I've never seen you do that before, not even after your...”
Tara wanted to say 'change', but it was still not a subject Anne allowed her to speak about. No matter how fantastical the notion, 'Quinn Oliver' was not on a case assignment. Nor sentenced to Alcatraz. Nor visiting relatives back east. Nor any other perfectly explainable place. He was, in a real sense, gone from this earth.
Another existed in his place.
Anne had not even tried to deal with the situation, preferring instead to act as if nothing had happened, and drink herself into oblivion every night to make sure she didn't think otherwise.
This was not the first or even fifth time she had scraped Anne off the floor. But it had been a week since Anne's last episode.
She had been getting better. What set her back?
“You know the drill; down to the YWCA for a shower,” Tara said.
CLOSE SHOT - WALL CLOCK SHOWING 8:10
DISSOLVE TO : CLOSE SHOT - WALL CLOCK SHOWING 9:30
Anne sat in behind her desk; her black hair was still wet and she wore a floral print dress. A mug full of black coffee shook slightly in her hand.
“Maybe I should go home and change,” Anne said. “You know I'm not comfortable wearing-”
“-You’re lucky I had my dry cleaning with me.”
“-Please, Tara, don’t make me-”
“-Can it. The retainer we got yesterday? After back rent, utilities, and my salary, you have 92 bucks left. We have a phone message from a potential client wanting to meet with you at 10, and you damn well better pull yourself together. You can slink home after that to change.”
“Did he leave a name? Was it a ...Mr. Natas?”
“No, it was Phanuel, or something like that.”
Seeing fear in Anne's eyes made Tara's stomach tighten; nothing scared Anne, yet she was terrified.
“What happened yesterday? I thought you not coming back meant you were in deep cover, tailing our mark.”
In stutters and halts, Anne told Tara of following Donovan to the Ambassador, finding the strange Kira painting instead of Arik, and then meeting the frightening Luke Natas. She ended up simply driving for most of the day, finally ending here, where she downed her liquid dinner and passed out.
“I …don't know how to explain it; first, the picture Kira painted hypnotized me! I don't think I've ever seen anything that …that…”
That what? Beautiful? Powerful? The picture held magic, pure and simple, a notion Anne would have dismissed with a laugh several weeks ago. But that was before; now she was a believer.
“I swear I could hear Natas' voice speaking in my head. His lips didn't move! And before you ask, no, I hadn't been drinking anything other than coffee.”
“What do you think he wanted?” Tara asked.
“I think he wanted …my soul.”
The women stared at each other; the only sound was the rumbling of a nearby subway train. Both jumped at the loud banging on the office door.
Anne and Tara's eyes shot to the wall clock - 9:45.
“Our client? Early maybe?” Tara gulped.
“Maybe; I'll check it out,” Anne answered, opening a desk drawer and reaching down into it.
“Why you? You're not a m-” Tara paused, rethought. “Now, you're just like me. Shouldn't I answer it? It's what you pay me for, you know.”
“Why me? Because I'm the one with the gun,” Anne said, pulling her revolver out.
She flipped the chamber open, saw the gleaming bullet ends in all six chambers, and then clicked it back in place. She rose and walked into the main their reception area.
“Yes? Who is it?”
“Delivery for a Ms. Carter,” said a boyish voice through the door; definitely not Natas. Anne's shoulders uncoiled, and she tried to figure out where to stow the gun.
“No pockets; stupid dresses,” Anne muttered, before stashing it behind the printer on Tara's desk.
A young man, wearing a bike helmet, and spandex-y shirt and shorts, handed Anne a 5' long brown tube, a white envelope, and a newspaper.
“Sign here please.”
After Anne scribbled on the shipping form, she frowned at the long tube. “What is this?”
“Got no idea; some babe at the Ambassador had us pick it up last night.”
The boy took the clipboard from her and handed back a yellow copy. Then his eyebrows shot up.
“Oh! Almost forgot.” He pulled a folded newspaper from under his arm. “This is yours, right? I found it in the hallway.”
Anne nodded slowly. It wasn't, in fact, her newspaper; it belonged to the CPA who officed next door. She couldn't speak to tell him though, because the headline had stolen her tongue:
CLOSE SHOT - FRONT PAGE OF DAILY CHRONICLE
FAMOUS PAINTER ARIK DONOVAN FOUND DEAD IN HOTEL ROOM
INT. OFFICE - MED. SHOT
Anne sits behind her desk again, with Tara seated in front, reading the Chronicle. The long brown canister lies on the desk top. Anne holds the white envelope in her hands that came with the canister.
“No foul play suspected; cause of death was a heart attack. He passed away around 6p.m.”
“6 p.m.?” Anne said.
“Because the courier form says it was picked up at 5:15. Why did he send this to me minutes before he died?”
Anne shrugged after a moment, and was ripping into the envelope, when Tara shrieked.
“It says Donovan was found dressed in women’s clothing,” Tara said.
“He was wearing a short shorts and a pink halter-top.”
“That doesn’t make any sense; she was wearing…”
Anne dropped the letter and opened the desk drawer. Tara reached across the desk to grab her arm.
“Don’t you dare, Anne! Don’t you reach for that bottle! Our client will be here any minute.”
“I’m getting my camera, kiddo,” Anne said, rolling her eyes. “I’ve got snaps of the woman in clothes matching that description. Anyway, the bottle’s empty.”
Anne set the camera on her desk, powered it on …and gasped.
When Anne’s started shaking, Tara reached across the table, pried the camera from her, and looked at the image.
“This is Donovan.” Tara’s eyes darkened. “Were you hammered when you tailed him? My, God, you could have killed yourself or someone else if-”
“-No! I was stone sober! You’ve got to believe me! Maybe the letter explains some of this.”
Anne finished opening the envelope and pulled out the letter.
CLOSE SHOT — LETTER
While Anne read, Tara popped the canister lid off of a tube end and started to unroll its contents.
Anne lunged across her desktop and swiped the painting.
“No! You can’t! you mustn’t …look at it. It’s evil!”
Tara blinked several times and gripped the desk edge.
“I know you are under a ton of pressure; no one could go through what you did and not be stressed out. But as the old Quinn Oliver would say, let’s review the facts.
Tara held up a finger. “One. I find you passed out on the floor this morning. Two. There’s the business of a woman who doesn’t exist, and your pictures of Donovan in drag. Three. A man, probably hotel security, confronts you and you freak out, thinking somehow he’s the devil after your soul. And four, this bizarre reaction to me wanting to look at …whatever this is. You are really starting to worry me, sweetie.”
“I’m not crazy; that picture is-”
“-Hello!” A man’s head appeared in the office door. “Sorry to interrupt, but I think I’m your ten o’clock?”
Tara jumped from her seat to usher the man in.
“May I get you a coffee Mr…”
“Phanuel. No thanks.”
When Anne finished stuffing the painting back in its tube, she looked up at the man. A youngish looking fellow stared back at her, dressed in the same sort of expensive dark suit Mr. Natas wore. Except that, unlike Natas, whose hair was dark, short and impeccably groomed, this man had a mass of curly blond hair that haloed his head.
Anne took a gamble. “You are not, by chance, an associate of Mr. Natas?”
He smiled and shook his head. “I am a competitor.”
“Ah.” Anne eyed the brown tube on the desk. “So how can I help you, Mr. Phanuel?”
“I see you possess the final painting of Arik Donovan. I am already in negotiations with his estate to purchase this piece. I am keen to acquire it before Natas can, and am prepared to pay you a handsome finder’s fee if you will relinquish it to me …Quinn.”
Anne’s eyes widened. “How do you …what is…”
Faster than she could see, Phanuel’s head reached over to hers. When they touched, peace blanketed her and she let out a long sigh; a breath she had been holding, seemingly for weeks.
“Let me tell you a story. There once was a painter who was known the world over for his amazing work…”
“Donovan,” Anne whispered to which Phanuel nodded.
“…fame and riches were his, but it wasn’t enough. He felt with each painting he finished, that the work was imperfect, lacking in something he couldn’t provide.”
“What,” Anne asked.
“Donovan felt he painted from a masculine perspective. He thought this was his flaw, for he reasoned a painting should also be painted from the feminine point of view.”
Anne frowned. “Sounds like a bunch of egg-headed nonsense. If he was right, then every painting ever made was off, whether painted by a man or a woman.
“Agreed, yet it obsessed him. He wanted to be the first artist, through all of history, to paint the perfect picture. And so he cut a deal...”
Anne's mind raced to put the pieces in place
... Kira ...finishing the woman in the picture ...Natas in the hall...
As incredible as it seemed, this must be the truth.
At least I can tell Mrs. Donovan that Arik wasn't cheating on her with another woman...
“He sold his soul to be able to paint half the picture ...as a woman!”
“Very good.” Phanuel nodded. “And almost the moment 'she' finished it, Mr. Natas collected. I say almost, because Donovan did manage to send this out right under Natas’ nose.”
“But why did Donovan send me the painting? And if it is perfect, why did he say it was evil?”
“I'm not sure why he sent you this. Perhaps he saw something in you ...some shared bond. We may never know. As to why it is evil...”
Phanuel stood and walked to the window. He was silent for several moments, allowing Anne to hear a lonesome train whistle miles away. Light streaming through the window made Phanuel's shadow appear on the opposite wall. Yet, the shadows stretched far wider than they should; to Anne they almost looked like wings.
“Donovan succeeded; the picture is perfect. Yet, his inspiration sprang not from artistic fire but from vanity, to be history's greatest painter. Had great virtue inspired him, a viewer would be taken to rapturous heights, enlightenment.”
“When I saw, it looped me back and forth, male to female, but I felt, well, nothing other than that.”
“Exactly. There was nothing behind it; it captures you and fills you with nothingness.”
Anne's mind raced back, seeing Tara opening the painting.
If she had opened it ...if she had seen...
Slowly, with trembling hands, Anne picked up the tube and handed it to Phanuel.
“Please ...take this...”
Phanuel nodded, and took the tube, placing it under an arm. He pulled a check from his coat pocket and placed it on her desk. She didn't look down and only later discovered the amount had several zeros in it.
“What happened to him ...to Donovan?”
“Ah. For all his cunning, Mr. Natas is hardly creative. I wouldn't be surprised if he locked Donovan in a room with the image of this painting before him, and left him there forever.
That thought gave Anne a sudden and overpowering craving for a drink. This once, she fought it. She took a deep breath, and asked the questions she had been wanting to for weeks.
“You called me Quinn ...somehow …you know who I was. Can you tell me why this happened to me?”
Excitement and fear blended to rush her words.
“I made no deals with Natas, yet one morning three weeks ago, I woke up in a different body; this body. Why? Why was I cursed? ”
“Cursed?” Phanuel smiled. “Are you sure? Perhaps your life was headed for disaster and some power intervened. Or perhaps this is simply one of the universe's many quirks and has happened for no other reason than it did. Or maybe this is an opportunity for you to learn.”
Phanuel opened the door. “You have done more good here than you know, Anne, thank you.”
“But how am I to know? Whether what happened to me was an accident or something more?”
“You're an investigator,” he smiled again, “so ...investigate.”
FADE IN :
Anne stands before a modest apartment door. In her hand is a bag containing several cartons of Chinese food. She knocks. When Tara opens her door, her eyes widen in surprise, and a smile crosses her face.
“Hi ya, sweetcheeks.”
“Anne! You’re …here? For …dinner? And you’re still wearing my dress?”
“You gonna let me in, or just stand there proclaiming my loveliness.”
When a laughing Tara stepped aside, Anne swept in, and set the food on Tara's kitchen counter. She looked up, to find Tara staring at her with arms crossed.
“Not that I'm complaining, but why, after all my other dinner invites, did you decide to show up tonight?”
“I dunno, it's just …” Anne sighed. “You can be the best at what you do ...you can be perfect ...but if you are coming from the wrong place, you end up with nothing, or worse. As Quinn I always ...I never...”
Anne's voice trailed off, and when Tara saw tears glistening in Anne's eyes, she ran to hug her. This time, instead of pushing her friend away, Anne let Tara's arms draw her in.
“I've never said anything before, but it worried me so much to see how, as Quinn, you drove yourself, case after case, and when you thought you'd come up short, you were so hard on yourself. I felt like...”
Anne felt Tara tremble in her arms, and her voice dropped
“...I felt like you lost a bit of yourself ...a bit of your soul... each day, with each drink you took. No one is perfect, Anne, people weren't meant to be, and-”
“-Shhh.” Anne put a finger to Tara's lips. “I get the picture. I'm going to try harder than ever to figure out who did this to me and why, but maybe, while I’m driving this body around, just maybe, I can learn to be a little more ...human? Enough philosophizen'; food's getting cold.”
Tara laughed again; she went to her cabinets and pulled out two plates. From a drawer, she grabbed a couple of unused chopstick sets and tossed them to Anne. Then she opened another cabinet and stared at the glasses.
“So, what's your poison?” Tara said.
Tara's face frowned to a 'how could I have been so stupid' look, but Anne answered her with a lopsided grin.
“Two shots of your strongest water, on the rocks.”
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